“Is it likely that any astonishing new developments are lying in wait for us? Is it possible that the cosmology of 500 years hence will extend as far beyond our present beliefs as our cosmology goes beyond that of Newton? It may surprise you to hear that I doubt whether this will be so. If this should appear presumptuous to you, I think you should consider what I said earlier about the observable region of the Universe. As you will remember, even with a perfect telescope we could penetrate only about twice as far into space as the new telescope at Palomar. This means that there are no new fields to be opened up by the telescopes of the future, and this is a point of no small importance in our cosmology.”
Fred Hoyle, The Nature of the Universe 1950
Now go watch this for a sense of what is going on in cosmology today:
Could he have been more spectacularly wrong? Dark matter, dark energy, the Hubble Telescope—which would peer into regions unimaginably old and distant, the cosmological background radiation, on and on the discoveries have gone. The fact is it has only taken about 50 years rather than 500 for cosmology to be further from him than he was Newton.
Hoyle was the coiner of the word “Big Bang” which he dismissively used to describe the theory that the universe began in a spectacular explosion from a singularity, now known to have been about 14 billion odd years ago.
He also did not believe in evolution.
Where did he go wrong? He misunderstood science. He wanted science to confirm to things he was unwilling to let go of. When it did not, he held onto his entrenched worldview that in the end became harmful. He refused to explore theoretical developments that did not cater to his take on things. He ignored facts and clutched at that which that had no warrant. He did not pay critical attention to the data. For example, he decided that panspermia (the idea that Earth life was seeded by life from other planets) was true and therefore any theories that did not include this were false.
The statement quoted above is rooted in his misunderstanding science in fundamental ways.
So how should members of the church respond to science?
First, recall how broad a definition of science I’ve promoted here: Science is not ‘a’ method but rather a constellation of activates, at least, in part consisting of: theory construction, logic, data collection, measurement, testing, trail & error, creativity, memory, falsification, confirmation, influence of current theory and paradigms, apprenticeships, refining technique, discussion, argument, going back to the drawing board, imagination, doubt, belief, asking questions, challenging convention, dreaming . . . and yes doing experiments where possible. Among the most important things, however, and the things that typify science more than anything else, are (a) holding all results as provisional, (b) keeping data and results open to public examination, and (c) publication only through rigorous peer review. These three things are what create the powerful self-correcting dynamic in science that has led to so many of its successes.
However, it is science’s relentless examination of the facts and no-holds-barred approach that has led to deep suspicions about science when it closely examines areas under its lens that have traditionally been the providence of faith. Some perceive science as a threat to that faith. Misunderstanding how science progresses, they see science as a monolithic megalomaniac that claims infallibility and exclusive rights to accessing the truth. I know of no scientist that would claim this. Most scientists, even deeply atheistic scientists, know there are limits to science and that truth is accessed in different ways and that there are different ways of knowing.
But for gaining access of the physical facts, processes, and laws of the universe, we know of no other way that that has been so productive. Scientists are likely protective of attempts by pseudoscience to grab the credentialing that science gives its results and you will find such attempts met with resistance. But within science itself, it is a bloody and contentious affair (as I write here in my very first MO blog!). Those things that rise to the surface are usually really really good (Like evolution).
The fact is, science is simply not a threat to our faith. Just as we have an open theology, one that has allowed new doctrines and ways of looking at the universe to unfold, I think we can be open to understanding our faith in light of the exciting things that science is disclosing to our eyes. Come. Fear not. A wondrous universe is being revealed to our view. These are exciting times and many are seeing that faith and science are not only compatible, but complement each other.
Some try to raise the warning voice of fear, that the findings of science will strip us of our faith. Not so. My faith is enhanced by evolution and the exciting findings coming forth from genetics, paleontology, anatomy, cosmology, and every science now doing research in scores of areas unknown to the scientists of just 50 years ago (take molecular biology as a profound example). You’ll notice that those who decry evolution almost always know nothing about it, and in fact, refuse to learn anything about it. And they, also, never offer alternative explanations of the myriad of data collected and analyzed by scientists. The Discovery Institute is a classic example of this with its Intelligent Design movement, which offers stunningly weak critiques of evolution, and offers nothing in return that science could tackle qua science.
Fear not. Even if evolution is true, the church is still true, despite what those who fear evolution are saying.